The Fellowship in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto is a journalism program unlike any other.
“What we decided to do was, instead of teaching a specialty in the course of a journalism degree, which is what a lot of places do, we would actually go and recruit the specialists and then teach them the journalism,” says program director Robert Steiner.
As Steiner suggests, most journalism programs teach students to be generalists, but he says there are more than enough programs like that to fill the demand. What readers want, he believes, is more niche content on subjects like health, science, business, and law. According to Steiner, this reporting needs to come not only from generalist reporters, but also from those who are already specialists in the given area. It’s with this in mind that the Munk School launched the program last September.
The current Munk Fellows, who will finish the program at the end of April, include a lawyer, an architect, and a former advertising executive. Though they come from different fields, they all have advanced degrees or years of job experience, as well as a common urge to share what they know with the world. Since their backgrounds typically aren’t in reporting, the Fellows get a crash course in pitching, research, and writing from former Ryerson journalism instructors Don Gibb and Shelley Robertson. They’ll also work with Steiner and Bernard Simon, a former Canada correspondent for the Financial Times, to write stories for publications such as The Globe and Mail and CBC News.
In December 2012, Burton Lim, a Munk Fellow with a background in mammalian zoology, wrote a a story for the Toronto Star about a fungal disease that had been found in the bat caves of North America. The fungus was decimating the bat population as they hibernated. But the real story, as Lim found out, was the financial impact that this could have on the Canadian and American farmers who rely on the bats for pest control.
The fact that he happened to specialize in bats meant that he got wind of the story before anyone else in the media, and had a more accurate understanding of the fungus and the research surrounding it. Coming from a field that values strong academic writing may have made it harder for Lim to learn the clear, simple style newspapers require, but it also allowed him to look more critically at the findings and claims of other scientists.
Munk Fellow Stephen Starr has been reporting on the uprising in Syria, where he lived and reported for five years before moving back to Toronto to be part of the Fellowship. It’s obvious from his writing that Starr has witnessed the Syrian revolt up close. “Being in the field gives you a sense of what you want to write about as a journalist, as opposed to sitting at a desk,” Starr says.
For example, in February, Starr wrote a story for The Globe and Mailabout how the unrest, which had remained mostly in the poor, rural parts of Syria, was beginning to make its way to the wealthy, urban areas. But instead of simply writing that the rebels were moving in, Starr used his understanding of the social tension in Syria to bring deeper insight to what was taking place.
“Why is this important? Not because the insurgents need money and logistical support from their wealthier countrymen to beat the Assad regime… but because the divisions taking root between Syria’s urban and rural populations will take far longer to reconcile,” Starr wrote.
Having lived in Syria during the conflict gives Starr an edge over other foreign affairs reporters who are coming into Syria, he says, but the true advantage comes from having both the background and the journalistic training.
“I think this is the way that foreign correspondence should be moving,” Starr says.
After what seems to have been a successful debut, the Fellowship has begun recruiting for the coming year. So far, the program has received applications from a diplomat, a couple of doctors, and several economists, among others. From the applications he’s seen so far, Steiner believes the lineup will be quite different and diverse—just like journalism itself.
Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto.